Airlines’ checked-baggage fees are pushing more travelers to carry their bags onto airplanes, making it even tougher for TSA screeners to try to spot potential security threats, the agency’s chief told Congress on Tuesday.
Defending the Transportation Security Administration against findings of incompetence, Administrator Peter Neffenger said he’s taken steps to try to change the culture at the airport screening agency and to ditch risky practices that sped travelers through lines, rather than focusing on trying to spot would-be threats.
But Mr. Neffenger said the airlines’ business models of charging for checked bags is pushing travelers to carry on more bags, and to stuff more into them, making the security checkpoint screening that much more difficult.
“It’s just a fact that a lot more stuff is arriving. It’s packed full of more things. People have more things. People have electronics in there. all of that poses a challenge for the screeners to deal with,” he told the House Oversight Committee, which called a hearing to look at the TSA’s operations.
The TSA has been under fire for months after a preliminary report leaked in the spring showing that investigators from the inspector general’s office were able to sneak banned items past the checkpoints in 96 percent of their attempts.
Inspector General John Roth said that investigation is now finished and while he declined to talk about specifics, citing the classified nature of the failures, he said the results were consistently disappointing.
Testing eight different airports of varied sizes, he said his auditors were regularly able to get banned items through.
“We found layers of security simply missing,” he testified, citing human error, bad policies and dodgy technology.
When the first results leaked in the spring, the TSA pushed back, insisting that the investigators were specially trained and weren’t a good example of the average passenger. But Mr. Roth shot down that excuse on Tuesday, saying his auditors weren’t given any special training and replicated real-life encounters at eight different airports.
Mr. Neffenger, who was sworn in after those preliminary results were made public, insisted he has taken steps to try to improve matters.
“The system as a whole remains effective and as a result of these tests has only gotten stronger,” Mr. Neffenger said.
Lawmakers said they were encouraged by his moves, but aren’t sold on the changes yet — particularly TSA’s reliance on the body scanners, known as advanced imaging technology or AIT.
“Your chances of failure are almost 100 percent with the current system, even with the training that you employ. I can thwart the AIT machines,” said Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Republican and former chairman of the House Transportation Committee.
The TSA was formed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when hijackers used weapons to take control of planes and turn them into missiles that struck the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia, killing thousands. A fourth plane was brought down in Pennsylvania by passengers determined not to let the hijackers use it as a weapon.
But the TSA’s massive bureaucracy has been plagued with problems, including trouble recruiting and retaining screeners. Some of the agency’s programs seem to be wastes, including a behavior detection program that involves officers roaming airports trying to spot would-be terrorists based on behavioral cues.
Lawmakers said some 50,000 travelers have been flagged by that program, and not one turned out to be a terrorist.
Meanwhile, “60 known terrorists passed through the behavior detection airports on at least 24 occasions,” Mr. Mica said.